Anybody who is sexually active is capable of transmitting or catching a sexually transmissible infection (STI) or a blood borne virus (BBV). Safer sex practices can greatly reduce your risk of catching or passing on a STI or BBV.
STIs are spread from person to person through direct body contact with an infected area, or contact with infected body fluids. The term is used to describe any infection acquired primarily through sexual contact. The organisms generally enter the body through mucous membranes, like the warm, moist surfaces of the vagina, urethra, anus, mouth and in rarer cases, the eyes. Mucous membranes are much thinner and more delicate than regular skin and get damaged more easily.
BBVs are spread from one person to another through blood to blood contact. Some BBVs, such as HIV and hepatitis B, can be spread through blood and bodily fluids such as semen, pre-cum, breast milk or genital fluids coming into contact with a mucus membrane or entering the bloodstream through a wound. Vaginal or anal intercourse can also cause tiny cuts in the membrane. Inadequate lubrication can increase the risk of this happening. The damage can be so small that you don’t even notice it but it provides an entry point for BBVs and STIs to enter your bloodstream.
STIs and BBVs can be transmitted from people who already have the infection, especially during oral, anal or vaginal sex. A person can be affected by more than one STI and/or BBV at a time. Although unlikely, it is also possible for a person to transfer an STI infection on one part of their body to another part of their body. For example, it is possible to transfer herpes, chlamydia or gonorrhoea infection of the cervix to your throat or vice versa via your fingers or a condom. In some instances having an existing infection can increase risk of contracting further infections. It’s less likely that STIs can be transmitted from objects (e.g. toilet seats), other than objects used as sex toys. However, some BBVs such as hepatitis C have long survival periods outside of the body, such as in syringes. It’s important to keep in mind that people often do not know they have a STI or BBV and may unknowingly pass them on to others.
Recurrence, Reinfection & Immunity
STIs are different from many common infections, like the measles. Once you have had the measles, your body develops immunity and you don’t get it again. With infections like chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis, immunity does not develop and so a person can contract these infections a number of times. Infections like HIV, hepatitis C, HPV and genital herpes may stay in the body and not be visible or cause symptoms or symptoms may occur at a later time.
There are various vaccinations recommended for sex workers, however, it is not mandatory that you get vaccinated.
The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition recommends sex workers should consider getting hepatitis A, hepatitis B and HPV vaccines. Additionally, it is recommended sex workers routinely get vaccinations containing DT (diphtheria and tetanus) and MMR vaccines (measles, mumps and rubella).
Some vaccinations are provided for free for sex workers in some sexual health clinics in the states and territories. Contact your local community or sexual health clinic for more information on vaccinations.
General STI Symptoms
People experiencing any of the following signs are recommended to have a sexual health check as soon as possible
- pain when passing urine
- an increase in discharge from the genitals or anus, that has an odour
- an appearance of lumps, sores or rash around the penis, vagina or anus
- unusual vaginal bleeding
- pain or bleeding when having sex
- anal pain or lower abdominal pain
- pain in the scrotum or testicles
- a persistent itch or irritation in the genitals or anus
- fever or flu-like symptoms
- persistent diarrhoea
Sex Workers & STIs
The good news is that despite the perception of occupational risks of STIs in sex work, many studies have shown that the incidence of these infections in Australian sex workers is lower than in the general community. Sex workers are the experts at protecting ourselves from STIs and providing safer sexual services. Research also demonstrates that sex workers are well connected to services. The success of peer education and peer outreach means sex workers know where to go and how to respond in the instance of STI and HIV transmission.